The top Democrat on the House ethics committee said yesterday that he has reached "an agreement in principle" with Republicans to end a two-month impasse over staffing and allow the committee to begin investigations within weeks.

Republicans maintained that there is no deal but said that House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) could referee a solution as soon as today.

Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.) said in an interview after a 45-minute meeting with Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) that the two reached an agreement that would require only that they "cross all the t's and dot all the i's."

A sticking point was whether Ed Cassidy, Hastings's 10-year chief of staff, would be co-director of the committee. Mollohan insisted that Cassidy would have to be approved by the committee, which is split 5 to 5 between Republicans and Democrats.

Under yesterday's agreement, the committee's top job, known as staff director and chief counsel, would be a nonpartisan official chosen by a vote of the committee. Republicans said that there was no concession and that even the idea of Cassidy as co-director, serving with an official chosen by Mollohan, had been off the table since May 12.

Mollohan said the committee will now be able to begin hiring staff and perhaps be in business "within weeks." The committee has yet to take up a case this year.

The most pressing assignments will be to determine what to do about a spate of violations of travel and reporting rules by both parties, and to take House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) up on his offer to answer questions that have been raised about his relationships with lobbyists.

Mollohan said the process took so long because it was a matter of "just getting to a common understanding of what the rules require and the rules provide."

"That has taken some discussion," he added.

That is a considerable understatement. The dispute over staffing has poisoned relations between Hastings and Mollohan, with both exchanging nasty public letters. Hastings plans to complain today that Mollohan has shared confidential information with the news media.

Hastings said in a letter to Mollohan on Tuesday that he had been "particularly offended by a series of totally false reports about my current position since our last face-to-face meeting."

Republicans said a remaining hurdle is that Mollohan is demanding unprecedented restrictions on the aides -- one each for Hastings and Mollohan -- who are allowed to have duties in the committee and the lawmaker's personal staff. In the case of Hastings, that will be Cassidy.